There are three calendars in operation in Egypt. No wonder arrangements get muddled up, appointments missed. How in the world do you know which system is in use and when?
I suspect this explains a few things about workmen’s sense of timing. I say “February” and he says “Touba”; we may mean the same thing – but then again, we may not.
It is embarrassing: it’s taken me 35 years to notice this detail of life in Egypt. How could I possibly not have registered the differences before? Very possibly because I was not gardening here.
Today we have entered October of the Gregorian calendar – or “shahr ‘ashara” (month number 10) as Egyptians prefer to say. In the Islamic calendar we are approaching – but not quite in, as it is part of a lunar system – “zu al-Hajj” or the month of the pilgrimage. Yet an ancient Egyptian would have been well into “Tout” (named for Thoth, variously the god of the moon, wisdom and writing, and lord of time; also, patron of scribes, which is kind of good to know). He would have been just as aware that this is the season of “Akhet”, or the inundation. Nowadays, we are all happily in agreement that it is “al-khareef”: autumn.
The ancient system lives on, both in the Coptic Christian tradition and in the agricultural calendar. Hence the entirely different way that farmers think about and express how they organize cultivation of the land. I find this fascinating: it is a direct link with those wonderful scenes of farming carved and painted on the walls of tombs, with the produce discovered in burial sites (from barley to dom palm fruit to raisins), and with the people who worked so hard to cultivate the land that helped make Egypt wealthy.
The three seasons, each of four months, were “Akhet”, “Peret” (growth) and “Shomu” (harvest). Many of the months were named for ancient gods, though one, “Paona” in June and early July, remains a mystery.
Time to sow
Following this system, I know that now is a good time to sow the first seeds. The secret garden on the balcony is expanding, the early sowings are germinating. We may have to set up an annex on the roof.
Two of the raised beds are swinging into action, planted with rocket, spinach and parsley, with much more to come. I have some doubts about the soil, as it seems hard to the point of recalcitrance, but the gardener continues to reassure. The Arabic word “fellah” or labourer is derived from the root f-l-h; the verb “falaha” means to cleave or split. Having tried to work the soil, I see how this arose. I wonder, does our word “plough” have the same sort of origin in Old Norse?
Wandering through the near-deserted halls of the National Museum in Tahrir Square last week – there are almost no visitors here in Cairo right now – I came by chance across a primary piece of evidence for the ancient calendar.
It was a stone water clock from the reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE), who was, incidentally, the father of Akhenaten. Found in fragments in the temple of Karnak, it has been put back together and now stands as the oldest witness to the major constellations, seasons and months of the year that regulated daily life, prayers and festivals more than 3,500 years ago. It is shaped rather like a bucket, with the bottom smaller in diameter than the top. Water drained steadily out of a hole in the base, while being measured against marks on the side, and it is said to be accurate to about 10 minutes.
“10 minutes?” I did a double-take. If only we could keep time with the same accuracy in this high speed digital age – not that I would wish to have everything organized to the nanosecond. But it would be good to know that when the gardener says “Touba” and I say “February” – or do I mean “late January”? – we are both on the same page!